Keidel: The Smoke of Smokin’ Joe Frazier

By Jason Keidel
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If there were to be a defining montage, vignette, or single snapshot of Joe Frazier, he should be in overalls, his de facto work uniform. He was seen in suspenders all the time, working a farm, pounding a heavy bag, or just skipping and sweating around a dank ring in a dark room while he prepared for a fight.

It’s the uniform of a man, blue collar to the bone, who worked as hard as any American ever has for what he has. And when boxing was an essential sport, Joe Frazier was an essential boxer. Then he faced a faceless opponent: cancer.

Former Heavyweight Champ Joe Frazier Dead At 67

For such a festive sounding noun, it’s a semantic traitor. Hospice is that word. That’s where Joe Frazier, champion, icon, and toughness nonpareil was fighting his final round. Advanced liver cancer, they said.

Actually, it is Les Wolff, his manager, who said it. I know Les, and Les loved Joe Frazier. Who wouldn’t? Frazier’s guile is matched only by his gratitude, the quintessential pugilist’s paradox, full of fury between the ropes and refreshingly genteel on the street.

I interviewed Frazier for on March 8, the 40th anniversary of the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier accorded me every courtesy possible, his hoarse voice reflecting his muscular spirit. According to a report in the Philadelphia Daily News, Wolff was planning to haul Frazier to Russia for experimental treatments, which sounded like a few, perfunctory punches thrown by a defeated fighter. And instead of a referee stepping in to end the contest, a higher power called it off. 

Frazier, 67, was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1970 until 1973: a time when being the baddest man on the planet still meant something. And Smokin’ Joe was indeed a badass. Many of you don’t know that he did this while legally blind in one eye since he won an Olympic gold medal in 1964. Imagine if he had two eyes on the prize.

It’s impossible to ponder Frazier without mentioning Muhammad Ali, Frazier’s physical and metaphysical inverse and eternal tormentor. You know they fought three times, a savage, fistic trilogy that made Yankees-Red Sox seem like a senior prom.

Those fights defined both men, but for mostly the wrong reasons. Despite the fact that Frazier floated money to Ali while “The Greatest” was banned from boxing between 1967 and ’70, and even petitioned the sport to reinstate Ali’s boxing license, Ali repaid Frazier with gratuitous – and grotesque – insults that belied sportsmanship, gamesmanship, and civility. Ali repeatedly and publicly called Frazier stupid, an Uncle Tom, and a gorilla, even stuffing a doll resembling the mammal in his breast pocket, from which he plucked and punched the toy with every punch line.

Whenever they fought, the ring morphed into a voting booth on social issues – race, class, war, etc., when the sheer brilliance of their boxing skills required no preamble. Frazier, known for his generosity, and even pulling off a road to help someone whose car has sputtered onto the shoulder, didn’t respond to Ali’s insults outside the ring. He literally let his punches do the talking. Later in life, Frazier (understandably) shot back, unable to seal his searing resentment toward a man who, for a decade, painted Frazier in unconscionable stereotypical tones. Ali never apologized to Frazier in person, using various conduits to offer oblique contrition.

Ali taunted many of his opponents, but none with the bile he directed at Frazier. And no one other than Ali knows why. To paraphrase Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s fight doctor, there wasn’t a blacker man in America than Frazier, thus italicizing the irony of Ali’s comments. Frazier, who was literally darker than Ali, was also poorer, raised in the aorta of the segregated South (S. Carolina), a sharecropper’s son who shared a shack with a dozen siblings. Yet Ali constantly claimed that anyone who rooted for Frazier was the enemy of all blacks. The epic bouts should have bonded the men forever. Instead, it stretched an emotional chasm that was never closed.

In a strictly sporting sense, they were equals. Frazier battered Ali in 1971, the aforementioned Fight of the Century, flooring the undefeated Ali in the fifteenth round to cement the victory. Ali won the next (and far less dramatic fight, in 1974, as there was no title on the line), which led to the famed rubber match in the Philippines, in 1975.

The final fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” far more notable for its brutality than boxing acumen, was as violent as a violent sport can get. They assaulted each other in unbearable heat for 14 rounds. Frazier’s corner, more specifically his legendary trainer Eddie Futch, forbade Frazier from entering the final round. Already sightless in one eye and the other closed by Ali’s punches, Futch was more interested in saving Frazier’s life than winning a fight. It was the noble thing to do, even if Frazier hated him for it.

Ali said that was the closest he ever felt to death. Indeed, some ringside witnesses said Ali won with more happenstance than superiority, asserting that Ali limped to his corner after the 14th round, moaning, “Cut ‘em off,” meaning his gloves. “I’m done.” (Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, disputes this, but Dundee also said Ali won their first fight, when he clearly didn’t.)

If the story is true, then Frazier’s corner just happened to toss in the towel a few seconds sooner. Imagine how our history books would read had Ali’s towel landed first; each icon’s past, future, and legacy shaped by a nanosecond.

Both men should have retired in 1975, as no mortal could thrive after that fight. And Frazier did quit the sport, enjoying a lucid life, training fighters and forming a music group, with “Mustang Sally” being one of his favorite covers.  Yet only Ali was worshipped, while Frazier lived in a small room in the dingy gym bearing his name, where he trained for his fights, in a Philadelphia ghetto known as “The Badlands.” The cliché about history’s cruelness can use Joe Frazier as Exhibit A.

There are too many sad ironies in Frazier’s professional life when juxtaposed with his innate decency. Indeed, he’s better known for his 4 losses than his 32 wins. “Down Goes Frazier!” was Howard Cosell’s resonant call when George Foreman pummeled Frazier in Jamaica in 1973. Lost in the shouting is the fact that Frazier lost only to Ali and Foreman over his entire pro career. He was the first to defeat Ali, and he wore the title belt far longer than Foreman did. He was the only American boxer to win gold in ’64, and 27 of his 32 pro victims were knocked out. Frazier was a legitimate, dominant champion long before boxing’s best athletes defected for football and other team sports.

Last week I wrote that the rancor between Ali and Frazier would haunt them until they died. I had no idea that day would come for one so soon.

Some will say an important part of a particular sport died with Joe Frazier. That’s correct, but incomplete. A part of America died with him. Few fighters were better than Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and even fewer men.

Feel free to email me:

  • Kurt Spitzner


  • Tommy C

    Mr Frazier GodSpeed in your battle . You may not know this . You’ve been the CHAMP long before you beat the classless Cassuis Clay .Ali may have been a graceful fighter ,but was a fool as an adult always the race card as if he was the black peoples champ and you were the white peoples . Ypu will always be the CHAMP and Cassius will always be the CHUMP.

    • Julius

      Tommy C, why is Ali a CHUMP and classless? because he told America he would not fight in a war the US should not have been in to begin with. You’re probably under 40 years of age so understand this.

      Ali was stripped of his title by the government, the same government that during Ali’s time had many states which DID NOT ALLOWED blacks to eat, sleep, be educated in the same place as whites, but yet wanted the black man to fight a war for the country just like the white man, but upon returning, after serving his country, it was back to how it was before he left.

      Not only did the US Government strip Ali his boxing title, but also his equal rights, his freedom of speech, his freedom to practice his religion.

      Also, when Ali appealed, the U.S Government in a letter to the Appeal Board advised against granting Ali wishes. The Board honored this request from the government without stating the reason it was basing its decision

      You need to educate yourself Tommy C (Dumbass) before making statements.

      • Kurt Spitzner

        Being religious when there is the chance of going to war is no excuse especially when one changes their religion!many black citizens have fought in many wars for this country yet they did not make excuses in order not to defend the country they chose to live in.And no I am not 40 years old, I am Caucasian,but have many friends of many colors and have for many years who also share my point of view.Just because you disagree with someone that does not make you a dumb ass!

        • Julius

          So calling a man you DON’T KNOW classless & a chump you find OK. Isn’t that the same as me calling someone a dumbass for speaking without knowing? Here you come defending the man, yet you also have no idea on what the hell you’re talking about.

          Again, it’s all in the constitution, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.

          Ali did not make an excuse; he wished not to take a human life, he wish not to fight in a war he did not believe in. The people (white America) were behind Frazier because Ali refused to go to Vietnam. He was stripped of his title for not doing so.

          And those many black citizens who fought in many wars for this country yet they did not make excuses, Jesus you’re stupid!!!. I guess they had no reason to marched in protest for their treatment in this county they so fought for in those many wars. They just decided, hey! it’s a nice sunny day, let’s all go for a long walk to the Washington, D.C

          And those so call friends of many colors you say you have & talking about, because you sat next to them in the same classroom or work with them in the same office does not make them your friends.

          Ali was also a trash talker, no different to want players do today and Ali was great at that. And that’s what he did to Joe by calling him a gorilla.

          You may not be 40, but one more dumbass equals to two dumbasses, so put a quarter in a slot & call someone who cares

          • Kurt Spitzner

            Ali should have been stripped of his citizenship!
            There is no arguing the civil rights issues of black people if that is the term you prefer,but that has nothing to do with them fighting for our freedom and constitutional rights.
            And many of the black people I speak of are just like family,as I grew up with them in my home and in theirs.Many lived in Bed Stuy,Mount Vernon,as well as Manhattan and some still do but how could I possibly have a pertinent point of view.I guess those friends and family aren’t black enough for you julius

            • Julius

              Spitzner “Archie Bunker” you just proved my point about you, being like family is not the same as having family members or close friends who are black. Here’s what you don’t seem to want to understand, what was done to Ali was done because he was black & a liberal.

              People in the 60’s & early 70’s many whites marched & protested the war for the same reason Ali did. They also were told, via the draft, that they also had to go to war & they refused, yet they did not go to jail or lose their citizenship, which by the way you idiot, you can not lose if you’re BORN IN THE U.S.A

              Maybe your DUMBASS is thinking in saying is that Ali should have been shipped back to Africa.

              Also, I’m sure you’ve been wondering, I am not black, but unlike you, I do have family members and close friends who are.

              What I’m telling you Archie Bunker & all those who have read my post, unlike you, I know my American History very well.

              Fighting for our freedom, damn you’re dumb, the war was in Asia, not in US soil.
              Also a war we lost, big time, was it worth it, did we lose our freedom?.

              Power To The People!!!!!

              • Kurt Spitzner

                Just because the war was wrong did not give individual citizens the right not to fight for their country at the time regardless of their color,or religion and there are many Veterans out there that will tell you just that.
                Now I am a bit confused over my friends as it seems no matter who they are describe they do not fit the non existent criteria you have for you inside knowledge on how all black people feel.
                I have many black friends as well as black friends who are like family so that point of your is moot!
                As far as losing citizenship that was merely my opinion and not a statement of policy at the time so making comments on that was also very foolish and its obvious that you have no point other than to argue!
                As far as shipping Ali back to Africa is concerned is it also your contention that all black people at the time came directly from there or just another inane attempt at misrepresenting my words.
                Ali was not the only one to get into trouble but his problem ran deeper than being a black liberal and more to do with the fact that he tried to play the system at the wrong time and instead it backfired.Please check your facts thoroughly as I lived it!
                Our proud soldiers often fight for our freedom in all parts of the world and as history dictates most battles have not been on US soil but that does not mean they were and are not fighting for our freedoms!!!!!
                So in conclusion what makes your black friends and family any different than mine and once again I am not black either?Maybe you should go back to your militia or whatever it is that is giving you this misinformed view of life as well as others.IF YOU DON’T LOVE AMERICA THEN GET THE F OUT OR AT LEAST DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT OR DENY YOUR FREEDOMS!

                • Julius

                  I’ve schooled you, I’ve educated you. Now you’re talking pour nonsense because you can’t come up with anything intellegent to say.

                  You now want to talk about freedom, yet maggots like you have never and will never fight for freedom by serving in my beloved corps.

                  You hide behind the American flag & call yourself an American. Walk in my boots like my brothers & I have, then come talk to me about freedom.

                  Get on your knees because you have not lived it son and thank us for your freedom.

                  Sgt. Julius Wesley, 1st Battalion 13th Marines


  • Robert Richardson

    Joe Frazier is a prime example of someone exerting his all to achieve, never to bask in the rewards he so richly deserved. A bitter lesson in fighting the good fight. Great article JK

    • JK

      Thanks, man. Had Ali treated him humanely, Frazier would be a fellow king today, at least in the public’s eye.

      • Kurt Spitzner

        Joe Frazier at least gets to live out his days knowing exactly who he is,what he is saying as well as with whom he is speaking throughout his life so sometimes things are not always what they appear.

        • JK

          A doctor sent me a lovely email today. He said based on his understanding of the facts, Frazier will not recover. I guess we knew that, but we cling to a healthy (even if childish) optimism over our heroes.

          • Kurt Spitzner

            Unfortunately,hospice is not a very positive term although I have been told that it is a godsend for many at such times,so it is very hard to be realistic as well as optimistic at a time like this.People have to be remembered for who they were and what they did and Joe Frazier is in the hearts of millions of Americans.

            • Robert Richardson

              Just got the word that “The Champ” has passed to the ages. A very sorrowful piece of news. We all must go to the next level but the way Joe Frazier met his maker just doesn’t seem right. I love Ali with all my heart but Smokin Joe was the greater man … a True Champion …. Rest easy, R.I.P.

              • JK

                Someone should open their show today with a ten count.

  • Kurt Spitzner

    I hope that hospice provides him with the dignity he deserves in his final time on this earth as it is certain that he has earned that and much more.

    • JK

      Indeed, Kurt. I shouldn’t have to write that piece for at least another decade.

      • Kurt Spitzner

        True.Another great article though buddy!

  • His Highness Prince Michael

    Bravo. An exemplary piece, on a truly incredible human-being.
    PRAY, for Mr. Joseph Frazier!

    • JK

      Much appreciated, sir. Let’s hope the piece was premature…

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